A Look at Indigenous Education: The Case of the Mazateca Community

Por: Diego Landeta

To speak about the education of Indigenous children, adolescents and youth in these times, is to speak about situations that have been forgotten, made invisible, and even ignored by the State.  In almost all countries in the world the disease caused by the virus (COVID-19) has generated quite complex situations in the political, economic and educational spheres.  Under this context some will ask, has the pandemic affected the education of indenous communities?  How are these communities living in these times?  I want to tell you about the specific experience with the educational situation in my community in Mazatlan Villa de Flores, Oaxaca, part of the high mazateca culture.

The town of Mazatlan Villa de Flores is found in the cañada region of the state of Oaxaca.  A town that still retains its language, territory, traditions, customs and worldviews.  In the community almost all older people are monolingual in the mazateco language.  They are the children and youth who, out of necessity, have begun to use the spanish language more (for decades spanish has been considered as a prestigious language compared to the languages of the native people).  In my region, in order to access health and education services, or to get a job, spanish is the language to do so, so today it’s clear that everyone aspires to speak spanish before mezateco.

Now, to understand the current education situation of mazateco children and youth, you have to look back to the closure of the schools in our country, when the “Learn at Home” program was implemented.  For many native communities, especially for the dozens of indigenous students and families, the program caused certain dissatisfaction, frustration and confusion, because the education authorities that implemented the program (from the government) assumed that everyone had access to the internet and digital platforms.

However, the reality in Mazatlan is different, because due to poverty and the neglect by the government, few mazateco students have the possibility to access technology (computer and internet), despite being necessary; some teachers have done their best so that these children learn at home implementing their own strategies, like delivering homework to children’s homes or posting the information with homework in the schools.  It’s difficult for children and youth living in isolated communities – where not even basic services are available – to adapt to this methodology, and are therefore excluded.

Knowing that for decades the education of our mezateco students haven’t been entirely good, under this situation it has been even more complex because even the students, teachers and parents don’t have the conditions to face these realities.  This means that education in my matazeco community is even more critical, because from our people and for childhood, the way to learn is through the interaction and observation that is done in their environment and of the subjects, therefore, in this case the role of mediator or facilitator is important in the process of learning and teaching.

It’s evident that the “Learn at Home” program has failed in the mazateco community, since, not having classes, many students are dedicated to field activities.  Also, in the community the majority of people have a low level of schooling; some of them didn’t even finish primary, so supporting the children from home was difficult.  In this case I wonder, Did the mazateco students really learn anything with the distance learning and teaching methods?  Did they satisfactorily complete the school year at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary level?  These questions are raised to reflect a little on the learning acquired by students in the face of  contingency, since it’s not possible to implement a distance teaching and learning method when we know very well that the realities of the community are different.

I believe that the main challenge for teachers upon returning to classes is how to incorporate the knowledge or content that has been affected by the pandemic, since the program implemented wasn’t efficient in the teaching and learning processes of the mazateco students.  Similarly, other questions to ask are how will the students be stimulated after several months without in-school classes?  and how will the dynamic be within classes?

On the other hand, there’s another challenge for the students, teachers and parents upon returning to classes, because we know that the protocols and the health measures should be a priority.  As the students are accustomed to play and chat with their peers in and outside of class, how will social distancing be maintained?  In the community, there’s only one pharmacy to get products like masks and anti-bacterial gel.  These are only some of the challenges that could possibly present themselves upon returning to classes.  So I think it’s important that the education authorities implement a strategy that contributes to the process of teaching and learning of mazateco students.

It’s necessary to implement a financing mechanism of the infrastructure of the schools, for the mazateco community, in addition to network access, and even provide mobile devices for the mazateco students.  As well as the products that are necessary in these times, like masks and anti-bacterial gel.  Also, providing a training program for indigenous teachers and students for the use of technology, this as material to teach specific skills.  I think that it’s necessary that the education authorities upon returning to activities implement education materials in the mazateco language for the students.  This is a right, that we all should have and be able to access these services, since my community of Mazatlan has been historically excluded from services provided by the State.

-Juan Diego Landeta is mazateco and has a degree in Indigenous Education with a specialty in designing and evaluating indigenous education policies in communities, private sector institutions, non-governmental organizations and in schools of different levels with indigenous populations in rural and urban spaces from the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional Unidad Ajusco, Mexico. He has done his Social Service in the program of the National Council for Educational Promotion (CONAFE) in the State of Oaxaca. He collaborated in the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation of the CDMX as a University Resident.